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NATURE AND OFFICE OF CRITICISM
1. Purpose of Literary Study. The study or reading of literature ordinarily has a threefold purpose, - knowledge, pleasure, and culture. This purpose shows us both the character of the literature which should be read and the manner in which it should be read. As a rule we should read only books of recognized excellence, and read them with sympathetic intelligence. Trashy books, whatever pleasure they may give, add but little to knowledge or culture ; and immoral books often leave an ineradicable stain upon the soul. Fortunately there are good books enough to satisfy every taste and supply every need.
2. Necessity of Comprehending. A literary work cannot be of much use till it is understood. It is useless to read books entirely beyond our grasp. In the perusal of an author we should endeavor to enter as fully as possible into his thoughts and feelings. Our primary aim should be not to criticise but to comprehend. This is sometimes, especially for the young student, a difficult task. It requires patient, painstaking labor; but in the end it brings a rich reward in profit, enjoyment, and power.
In the study of a literary classic we should aim at more than a mere intellectual apprehension of its technique and other external features. The soul should rise into sympathy with it, and feel its spiritual beauty. All literary study that falls short of this high end, however scholarly or laborious it may be, is essentially defective. The externalities of a piece of literature are comprehended in vain, unless they lead to a fuller understanding and appreciation of its spirit and life. Unfortunately, at the present time, philology and literary analysis frequently stop short of the realization of the supreme end of literary study. What should be only a means is sometimes exalted to an end.
3. Definition of Criticism. Criticism, as its etymology indicates, is the act of judging. Literary criticism endeavors to form a correct estimate of literary productions. Its endeavor is to see a piece of writing as it is. It brings literary productions into comparison with recognized principles and ideal standards; it investigates them in their matter, form, and spirit; and, as a result of this process, it determines their merits and their defects. The end of literary criticism is not fault-finding but truth.
The critic should be more than a censor or caviler. He should discover and make known what ever is commendable or excellent. At its best, criticism is not a mere record of general impressions but the statement of an intelligent judgment. It is not biased or vitiated by prejudice, ignorance, or self-interest;
but, proceeding according to well-defined principles, it is able to trace the steps by which it reaches its ultimate conclusions.
4. History of Criticism. Criticism is a natural attendant of all forms of art. Literary criticism is almost as old as literature itself. No sooner had a writer produced a literary work, even in the most ancient times, than his contemporaries proceeded to express their judgments concerning it. Among the ancient Greeks Plato and Aristotle were both critics; and the latter's work on “Poetics" is still valuable for its discussion of fundamental principles. Quintilian, Cicero, and Horace were distinguished Roman critics; and the poet's Ars Poetica, read in every college course, is an admirable presentation of many critical principles. But it is in modern times, and particularly during the nineteenth century, that criticism received its highest development. In England not a few of its leading literary men - Dryden, Pope, Addison, Johnson, Coleridge, Jeffrey, Macaulay, Carlyle, Matthew Arnold - have been critics; and in America we meet with such honored names as Poe, Emerson, Whipple, Lowell, Stedman, and many others. In recent years criticism has greatly gained in breadth and geniality
5. Standard of Criticism. All criticism involves comparison. For every species of literature there is an ideal of form, content, and spirit, which serves the intelligent critic as a standard of judgment. This ideal is based on a realization of the recognized principles of literary art. These principles pertain to diction, structure, matter, and spirit or purpose. No one will deny that the diction should be well chosen; that the structure of the sentences should be correct and clear; and that, in the case of poetry, the laws of versification should be observed. These elements contribute to excellence of form. In addition to these external elements there should be unity of thought, symmetry of presentation, truth of statement, and sincerity and self-restraint in sentiment. These elements give substantial worth to the matter or content of literature. Besides all this there is a grace or elegance or force, proceeding from the personality of the writer and transcending all rules of art, that gives a peculiar charm to the best literature. Sometimes the personal element or spirit of a work is so pleasing that it more than counterbalances defects of form, and wins its way to the popular heart.
6. Classic Writers. Our classic writers are those who have most nearly approached the ideal. The writings of Addison, Goldsmith, Irving, Lowell, and others, embody in a high degree excellence of matter and form; and in addition to this there is a pervading spirit that imparts an irresistible charm to their works. While the works of no one writer, whether ancient or modern, can be taken as an absolute standard of judgment, the perusal of classic works is exceedingly helpful. These works familiarize us with what is excellent in thought, expression, and spirit. They cultivate the taste; and at length it becomes impossible for the student to be satisfied with what is incorrect, slovenly, tawdry, or untruthful.
7. Requisites of Criticism. Many things are required for the best criticism. First of all, the critic ought to be a person of sound judgment. It is in a measure true
that critics, like poets, " are born, not made.” The critic should have the power to divest himself of prejudice; and, like a judge upon the bench, should decide
every question by the law and the evidence. He should be a man of broad sympathies and wide culture ; nothing that is human should be foreign to him. He should be able to enter into the feelings of every class and to appreciate the principles of every school. He should have a strong imagination to enable him to realize the conditions of other ages or of other social arrangements. Without these natural gifts of a sound judgment, broad sympathy, and vigorous imagination, the critic is apt to be limited, narrow, or unjust in his criticism. The history of literature reveals numberless critical blunders; indeed, almost every attempt to introduce new literary forms, as in the case of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats, has met with bitter opposition from uncatholic critics.
8. Criticism an Acquired Art. Criticism is an art that may in large measure be acquired. The requisite faculties may be developed by a course of study. The principles that are to guide the critical judgment are provided in grammar, rhetoric, logic, æsthetics, and moral science. Wide reading in various departments will banish narrowness and provincialism. Study and experience will bring a cosmopolitan culture. Though few are capable of attaining to eminence as critics, it is possible for every one to acquire some degree of literary taste and to form an intelligent judgment of a literary work.
9. Diversity in Criticism. Diversity of judgment is a notable feature in the history of criticism. It tends